From safety enhancements implemented in the wake of accidents to virtual simulation platforms that improve a race car’s pace per lap, NASCAR is consistently innovating to keep the sport relevant in the age of streaming and big data.
With a NASCAR Cup career spanning 19 years, Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, has witnessed new technologies implemented across the sport, changing the racing dynamics drastically. And to stay in contention, Jimmie has consistently had to advance his strategy and evolve his racing mindset to embrace these changes.
We sat down with Jimmie to discuss the top five technological advancements of the past two decades that are recreating NASCAR today and beyond.
1. Racing, like so much else in 2020, has had to find a way to go digital with things like iRacing and eNASCAR. Tell us about how this shift to new virtual platforms has affected you as a driver.
Big data is playing a much bigger role in racing dynamics. With virtual simulation, pit crews can run hundreds of mockups based on variables and race day setups to simulate things we might never even anticipate. With COVID-19, practice and qualifying were nixed for the remainder of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, but virtual simulation platforms meant we were able to improve our cars even though we weren’t actually on the track driving.
Along with a lot of other NASCAR teams, my team and I are now using virtual simulation platforms that draw from years of data and use algorithms to predict scenarios. Now my team can make virtual tweaks that can lead to real-time gains on race day — sometimes three to four-tenths of a second per lap. I know that might not sound like a lot of time, but it can make a real difference.
2. Fans have definitely been feeling the absence of in-person sporting events — but how have the empty stands affected your race day?
The lack of fans has been felt profoundly — that excitement and “anything can happen” atmosphere has always been an essential part of racing for me.
Before 2020, I, like so many others, was no expert in virtual communication platforms. But I’ve become more familiar with new digital platforms and capabilities through my children’s virtual school, for example. And now, the virtual world has become fundamental to NASCAR, to team collaboration, and to the fan experience. They’ve introduced Digital Midways, where fans experience the racetrack without being there. Another thing that’s been particularly special to me are the virtual meet and greets, where I can connect with fans and sponsors across the country. It’s amazing all the ways I’m able to be in touch with fans — I never could’ve imagined it!
3. Safety is obviously one of the top concerns with racing, and safety protocols have seen significant technological changes over the years. What would you say are the top three tech upgrades that have revolutionized racing?
Three upgrades that first come to mind on the safety protocol front — and these have all come on the heels of the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt — are:
- Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER®) Barriers: These are essentially “soft” walls around the racetrack that use foam inserts between the two concrete slabs to absorb most of the impact of a high-speed crash.
- Head and Neck Restraint Systems (also referred to as HANS devices): This restraint system reduces the likelihood of head or neck injuries, in the event of a crash.
- The driver’s seat: The angle of the seat was updated to help contain us — the drivers — within the vehicle at an angle optimizing the use of the head and neck restraint systems.
These three implementations have reduced the danger threshold of a car crash down to levels previously unimaginable years ago. For example, Earnhardt’s crash was estimated to have a 60g impact. Now, with the more recent changes in safety, I’ve experienced a 90g+ crash and walked away without serious injury.
4. Everyone gets hyped up to see the new car designs each season — but what other kinds of upgrades go into each race car? What is some of the tech you utilize as a driver?
Digital dashboards have made an incredible difference in car racing. We used to use analog gauges for things like water and oil temperatures, lap times, and RPM levels — but now, I can see that information in real-time and at-a-glance. The dashboard is fully customizable with bigger and brighter numbers, which, I have to say, have been a real plus when speeding around the track at 200 MPH.
We can also outfit the dashboard with SportsMEDIA Technology (SMT) Data, which allows me to look at other drivers’ data. Actually, SMT Data was kind of controversial at first, because a lot of drivers didn’t want to reveal their secrets. But every season — every weekend, even — we get more and more competitive and whatever edge we can get is crucial. So, it’s become common practice in recent years.
5. How does NASCAR compare to Formula 1, in terms of technology? The cars themselves look vastly different — but what about what’s going on under the hood?
A lot of die-hard racing fans love this conversation — there’s this perceived rivalry between NASCAR and Formula 1. It’s hard not to see the similarities. But tech is often at the center of the argument.
For me, when you look at NASCAR, it’s all about entertaining the fans. Formula 1, on the other hand … those are the most exotic vehicles on the planet. They’re two entirely different directions. NASCAR has focused its technology on providing thousands of cheering fans with breakneck paces, car-to-car contact, and that “anything can happen” moment, whereas F1’s car tech focus is on pure speed and vehicle evolution.
And there are also incredibly exciting things happening behind the scenes. NASCAR is continuing to make huge strides in its race weekend operations and advancing car performance. It does this all with the same tools, resources, and technology as F1, but NASCAR does it at a more affordable price while keeping the entertainment value high.
With these technologies, Jimmie sees NASCAR continuing to innovate so it remains relevant in the ever-competitive age of on-demand entertainment and big data and continues to expand to reach more fans across the globe.